9992 THE ROMANOV BUREAU AN IMPERIAL MAHOGANY GILT AND PATINATED BRONZE MOUNTED BUREAU À GRADIN ATTRIBUTED TO HEINRICH GAMBS Russian. Circa 1800. Measurements: Height: 51″ (129.5 cm) Width: 511/2″ (130.8 cm) Depth: 26″(66 cm).
Of mahogany and gilt and patinated bronze. The superstructure fitted with three two-shelf compartments concealed behind tambour doors, each compartment surmounted by a gilt bronze classical mask and separated by a herm with gilt-bronze Egyptian bust and paired human feet. A plain surface retracts with the front flap pulling out to reveal an original red leather writing surface, the sides with replaced gilt-bronze gallery and ending in gilt and patinatned bronze replaced urn-form finials at the front corners set on replaced circular bases, all above a central frieze drawer flanked by two drawers with gilt-bronze handles with pierced oval backplates and replaced leonine masks, foliate pommels and double serpent-form drops. The whole raised on four square tapering legs, the front legs diagonally turned and headed by gilt-bronze classical female busts and each leg terminating in replaced bronze paired human feet, the side legs joined by replaced molded stretchers. Some small mounts lacking.
J. PAF…[only accessible when top shelf is removed]
An old handwritten label reads:
From Palace of Paul I Son of Catherine the Great of Russia signed Jean Pafrat cir. 1785. Item #206 Wallace Day Sale 1/30/31—
Romanov family private apartments within the Imperial Palaces of Russia.
Sold by Wallace Day Galleries, 27 February 1931, Lot 206 as part of confiscated Romanov items.
The present bureau, which was sold in 1931 as part of a tranche of 500 items confiscated by the Soviet government from the Imperial Romanov family, is confidently attributed to Heinrich Daniel Gambs (1765-1831) as it bears highly distinctive features of Gambs’ oeuvre, and relates very closely to four confidently ascribed pieces by the cabinetmaker in Russian Imperial collections. These include, in particular, bureaux in the Marble Palace, Saint Petersburg; the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; the State Historical Museum, Moscow; and Pavlovsk Palace, St. Petersburg.
With the exception of one stamped item from in the collection of the Historical Museum later in the second quarter of the 19th century,1 no signed Gambs pieces are known and attributions rest on historical records as well as the recurring use of materials, decorative motifs, and of identical bronze mounts in his furniture which “. . .enables us to identify some of these pieces with certainty, especially when they bear the same bronze ornamentation as pieces with a well documented history.”2 It is on this basis that the present bureau may be compared and ascribed to Gambs, as seen in the following examples.
Firstly, a mahogany bureau in the Marble Palace, although missing many of its bronze fittings, shares the bureau à gradin form with the same shaped double-arches surmounting the tambour doors of the superstructure, as well as its herm-form bronze Egyptian busts and paired feet (figure 1). The front legs are also angled outward and are likewise headed by bronze classical female busts, although of a different mold. According to Dr. Natalia Vladimirovna Ugleva, senior researcher at the State Historical Museum, Moscow, “[he used] one of his favorite devices – the support in the shape of a herm-leg.”3
Next, an early 19th century ‘secretaire with folding top’ in the Hermitage Museum (figure 2) is of the same form and of nearly uniform dimensions to the present piece. Here, bronze classical busts of an identical mold are mounted to the head of the front legs, along with the paired human feet at the base of all four legs (figure 3). A further, identical feature in gilt-bronze are the distinctive drawer pulls centered by lion masks.
Thirdly, a bureau by Heinrich Gambs in the State Historical Museum (figure 4), repeats several of these characteristic elements. The superstructure is of the same general form, decorated with four of the identical Egyptian busts and feet. The lion mask drawer handle is also recurrent.
Finally, a bureau in Pavlovsk Palace (figure 5) similar to that in the State Historical Museum once again shares a similar superstructure with Egyptian herms flanking the tambour compartments, as well as a similar drawer handle. Not only are the gilt bronze busts identical but the pieces’ shared authorship is particularly underscored by the very unusual undulating carving the can be seen in the mahogany of the pilaster, immediately below each bust.
Figure 6 offers a more detailed comparison of the bronze Egyptian-style busts and feet on the superstructures of the Marble Palace, Historical Museum, Pavlovsk Palace and present examples; while figure 7 illustrates the use of identical back plates on the drawers of the Hermitage, Historical Museum, Pavlovsk Palace and present pieces.
The importance of the workshop of Heinrich Gambs in the development of Russian furniture-making has recently been highlighted in Dr. Ugleva’s meticulous study entitled Gambs Furniture in the collection of the Historical Museum (Moscow 2016), which contains a large collection of previously unpublished pieces from his oeuvre.
According to Dr. Ugleva: “. . .[Heinrich Gambs’ production] is defined by the words ‘unique’ and ‘leading.’ The Gambs workshop was the first and only one which exerted influence on the development of furniture production of the entire country, in terms of artistic contents, as well as in the technical completion of the pieces. . .Undoubtedly, the finest quality of Gambs’ production went to St. Petersburg, where the factory was located and where the most important segment of the firm’s client base resided, including members of the imperial family and the aristocracy surrounding the court. . .4
The expression ‘Gambs furniture,’ [with ‘Gambs’ becoming a commonly used adjective in the Russian language] reflected the high level of the firm’s reputation, and according to a contemporary dictionary, was a brand not only in the sense of a trade label, but in a wider sense, was synonymous with preciousness. . .in other words, together with the article, one would acquire the sense of the highest form of aesthetic achievement, comfort and, undoubtedly fashion and prestige.”5
Ugleva points out that the term ‘Gambs furniture’ became synonymous with luxury, wealth and taste and entered into literature from the 19th century classics, including Pushkin “dreaming in his Gambs chair” and Turgenev in Fathers and Sons who “sat long after midnight, in a wide Gambs Chair, in front of the fireplace;” the expression even entered into one of the most famous of Soviet literary works The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov.
These qualities of Gambs furniture are hilariously referred to in Gogol’s Dead Souls where the narrator speculates on the possible reasons someone might wish to accumulate wealth by dishonest means: “every one of us has his weakness. . .another steals from his own children for the sake of some airheaded actress. . .or for the sake of some Gambs furniture. . .what can you do with so many of all sorts of temptations in the world. . .”6
Gambs writing furniture is particularly highlighted by Ugleva and is pertinent to the present piece: “. . .targeted at the most distinguished taste: from the small…bonheur du jour; to the the enormous, which, it is true to say, never appears cumbersome. On the contrary, all are elegant and luxurious. The exterior appearance follows the convenience of its function. When the table is needed, a slight movement of the hand transforms its shape and size depending on the work at hand. From the small [pieces], designed for letter writing, to the large, which allow the surface to expand to be able to place a multitude of folios and binders. For every sheet, envelope, workbook needed […], there is a mass of compartments and shelves, drawers and niches. Many of these have been placed in ‘cunning’ ways so that only the owner would know their location, in which case the bureau acts as a safe. In line with this are the locks of the most complex construction, which can secure with one key entire groups of compartments.”7 The present bureau has just such a complex locking system, where one key locks, simultaneously, a bank of three frieze drawers. Ugleva notes that one of the keynote features of a Gambs writing desk was the very high level of the finishing, including the fully veneered mahogany backs, shared by the present piece, and the use of solid mahogany for dividers and drawers, as is also the case in the present piece.8
Heinrich Gambs was born in Würtemberg, Germany, and began his career under David Roentgen. In the late 1780s he emigrated to Russia, where he established a workshop in St. Petersburg that was flourishing by the late 1790s. He sought out the country’s elite clientele, which included Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, who commissioned a desk in 1793. He produced many pieces for Pavlovsk Palace, and in 1795, Catherine the Great accepted his proposal for the furnishing of Grand Duke Alexander’s apartments, which included the famous cylinder bureau now in the Hermitage that exceeded in complexity and technical accomplishment even the desk delivered by Roentgen to Catherine the Great in 1783. Not long afterward, in 1801, Gambs was appointed court cabinet-maker and was “principally employed in supplying the Imperial residences, including Pavlovsk, Tsarskoe Selo and the Winter Palace,”9 as well as Mikhailovski palace, the Imperial Hermitage, New Hermitage, and Gatchina.
The present desk has an Imperial Russian provenance, and was brought to the United States during the great Soviet art sales, which took place between 1928 and 1933 as part of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Launched in 1928, these sales aimed to sell national art treasures to help finance industrialization, pay for imports, and reverse the trade deficit. In addition to museums, namely the Hermitage, the Soviet government also confiscated possessions belonging to members of the Imperial family.
As mentioned, more than 500 objects belonging to the Romanov family were taken by the Soviet government. These were sold to individuals in Germany who incorporated themselves as the “Import Antique Corporation” and brought the items to the United States to sell at the Wallace H. Day Galleries in New York. The auction catalog praised the collection as “the first of its kind to be brought to [America] from the old Imperial Palaces of Russia. They represent a rare collection of artistic and decorative furnishings of the Romanoffs, from the period of Peter the Great to the late Czar Nicholas II.”10 The present desk is highlighted in the catalog’s Forword as a fine example of 18th century furniture.
The Wallace Day auction was originally scheduled for January 29-31, 1931, however, Grand Duchesses Olga and Xenia Romanov (sisters of the murdered Czar Nicholas II) filed suit with the Supreme Court to prevent this sale, claiming that the objects were property of the Czar’s heirs. Although legal proceedings delayed the sale, the Grand Duchesses lost the suit and the auction was held February 26, 27 and March 1, 1931.
Curiously, hidden within the structure of the desk there exists a stamp “J PAF”, maybe indicating the well known Parisian ebeniste J. Pafrat. It is possible that this stamp was added by the Soviet government at the time of sale, as a French provenance would have increased the value of the piece at that time.
The present desk was included on the second day of the sale and is listed in the catalog as “Lot 206: Mahogany Writing Desk / Three-section tambour top divided by bronze mounted pilasters, writing slide and one drawer; square tapering legs. Made and signed by J. Pafrat, 1785-1793. From the Palace of Paul I, Son of Catherine the Great.” A New York Times article of February 28, 1931 describes the “Directoire mahogany writing desk of Paul I” as having brought $220.11
It is interesting to note the largest and central mount of this piece are two stems of lily-of-the-valley executed in finely chiseled gilt bronze. This is often associated with the tears that Eve shed when she was expelled from the Garden of Eden with Adam. As the flowers are combined with the depiction of serpents in the present mount, it is likely this is the meaning referred to here. The flowers stand for humility and purity within the Christian religion. A further example of the use of the lily-of-the-valley on furniture is found on a late-18th century suite of seating furniture by Georges Jacob made for Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at the Petit Trianon at Versailles; a detail of the motif on a fauteuil à la reine is seen in figure 8.
1. Ugleva, N V, and Heinrich Gambs. Gambsova mebelʹ v sobranii Istoricheskogo muze . Moskva : Gosudarstvennyĭ istoricheskiĭ muzeĭ, 2016. 78.
2. Important French and Continental Furniture. Christie’s New York, 18 October 2002, Lot 610.
9. Chenevière, Antoine. Russian Furniture, The Golden Age 1780-1840. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1988. 148.
10. Rare and Decorative Furnishings and Fine Art Porperties by order of Import Antique Corporation. Wallace H. Day Galleries, New York, NY. January 29-31, 1931.
11. “Women Bid Keenly At Czars’ Art Sale.” The New York Times. February 28, 1931.